The fabled Boqueria de San Josep, as it is officially known, or just La Boqueria, as it is more commonly known, is not the only food market in Barcelona and it isn’t the only excellent market either. It is, however, by far, the most well known, and one of the finest and most recognized food markets in the world. This is because it has the magic combination of outstanding fresh product, superb artisanal product, delicious prepared product at a slew of super, small restaurants and unparalleled atmosphere as well as a strong sense of history and place in an ideal location off Las Ramblas de Catalunya. I have been a number of times in my life and wouldn’t think of visiting Barcelona without stopping in, but on this last trip, I enjoyed a particularly special visit, as I was given a personal tour by Jorge Mas, who along with his brother, Joan, is the CEO of Mas Gourmets, the largest purveyor of embutidos in Barcelona, and the Vice President of the Boqueria Market.
I met up with Jorge at the Mas Gourmets shop towards the rear of the Boqueria. They have a number of stalls in the market, but this one is, the largest and most complete. It is a candy store for the charcuterie obsessed, carrying a wide range of premiere quality Spanish charcuteria, as well as a tremendous assortment of other Spanish deli items. To visit is to salivate. Their products can be had in all of the traditional forms as well as sliced and packed for travel, but for those hungry at the moment and looking to share, they have produced an ingenious (and delicious) set of products – mini-embutidos, like the chorizos pictured above. They are perfect for snacking while walking around the Boqueria or just meandering down Las Ramblas.
Mas treated me to a tasting of jamónes Ibéricos de Bellota, one of the greatest artisanal food products in the world. Always a pleasure to eat, the tasting was enhanced by the fact that his cortador sliced samples from three different four year old jamónes, each from a different region.
Each of the jamónes was delicious with wonderful, deep, sweet and nutty nuances. One may have tasted slightly sweeter, another nuttier and another smoother, but all had incredible, idiosyncratic permutations of flavor that were unique and totally satisfying. With representatives from Guijuelo, Jabugo, and Extremadura. I could not pick a favorite when asked. That would require much more deep study to really pick apart those individual elements of production and terroir that would ultimately prove most consistently satisfying to me. Based on this brief experience of tasting these similarly aged hams simultaneously, it would prove a most fascinating study and one that I would most eagerly volunteer for, should it ever come to pass.
The Ibéricos weren’t the only meats I tasted. I tried some of the mini-embutidos, which make a perfect, low-carb snack, and I had some cecina, the Spanish cured beef similar to Italian bresaola. Cecina is one of Spain’s biggest culinary secrets with the air-dried meat from older cows and oxen seriously competing with its much more well known porcine cousins for best in show.
Mas Gourmets has the finger on the Catalan and Spanish culinary pulses, also making and selling top quality sausages, foie gras products, olive oil and much more.
As delicious and wonderful as the stop at Mas Gourmets was, it remains a relatively small part of the market. I’ve always enjoyed strolling through the aisles, admiring the meats, seafood and produce, but doing so led by Jorge Mas, brought it to another level. To a significant extent the sellers rely on tourists for a good portion of their livelihoods and so are generally friendly, but accompanied by Mas, I experienced a relaxed frankness, not previously encountered. Part of that may have been the relative paucity of trade during the traditionally low tourist season of early February (an ideal time to visit the city, btw). In any case, the light day belied the general success of the market, which is expanding back on the side opposite the main entrance from Las Ramblas.
Markets around the world are so different from those in the US, with a much wider assortment of product, especially meats and fish. In the US, meat displays are typically limited to a few select cuts of meat, as far from the original source as possible. It is visually sanitized. At non-US markets, meats are much more easily identifiable as to what kind of animal they are from, with partially bitchered or whole animals quite common. In addition, displays of offal in the US are unusual, by quite commonplace outside of the US. Both of these situations are quite true at La Boqueria, where the clientele is generally not as squeamish and far removed from the origins of these products as are most Americans.
Vegetables and fruits are abundant and of excellent quality, even if the disparity with US markets is not as wide as it is with meats. A big exception, where the disparity, once again, becomes huge, is seen with mushrooms and fungi. Petras, the mushroom purveyor at the rear of the market, is a veritable fantasy land for mycologists, with all sorts of mushrooms, domesticated and wild, for anyone with an appetite for them.
For me the most visually appealing part of the market has always been the seafood stalls. Located in the very center of the building, they are a beehive of activity, both behind and in front of the ice-laden counters.
The breadth of species available and their superb quality never fail to get my blood moving. If visiting Barcelona with my family, I typically like to rent an apartment, specifically to cook some of the amazing items that can be purchased here. Traveling by myself with only a brief visit planned, precluded that on this visit.
Fishmongering is a job equally divided amongst males and females at La Boqueria. Watching them wield their heavy knives and cleavers provides great free entertainment.
Nothing separates La Boqueria more from Barcelona’s other excellent markets than its restaurants. Classic joints include Kiosk Universal for seafood a la plancha, Quim de la Boqueria, for great Catalan cooking and Bar Pinotxo for great food and possibly the most recognizable food person in Barcelona outside of Albert Adria – Juanito Bayen with his famous two thumbs up! There also happen to be a number of other good choices, including some new ones. The well known Catalan chef, Carles Abellan, has opened a new, international, fast food concept, called Yango, built around the llonganisa, a Catalan sausage and hot dog equivalent. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the market, stands Michael Scharra, another sausage and sausage sandwich seller, but with a completely different focus from Abellan.
La Boqueria is a colorful place in so many ways, both figuratively and literally. I know that I will always gravitate towards it whenever I visit this fair and delicious city.